Hawaii’s practice of outsourcing its prison operation won’t be ending anytime soon.

Without much publicity, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety is moving to award a new contract worth tens of millions of dollars to continue housing the state’s excess prisoners on the mainland.

About This Project

And the state’s current contractor, Corrections Corporation of America, appears to have an inside track, despite a long history of problems — including the murders of at least three Hawaii prisoners at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are housed.

The department has been soliciting proposals from vendors since early March, and it’s set to begin contract negotiations with a selected bidder in the coming weeks.

The resulting contract, which takes effect July 1, would allow Hawaii’s longstanding mainland prison operation — first begun in 1995 as a “short-term solution to chronic overcrowding” — to remain in place for at least three more years, with options for two one-year extensions.

Under the current contract, the state pays CCA a per-diem rate of $70.49 per prisoner — an arrangement that amounted to just under $31 million in fiscal year 2015.

Hawaii has about 1,400 prisoners housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center, which sits in the middle of an Arizona desert about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix.
Hawaii has about 1,400 prisoners housed at the Saguaro Correctional Center, which sits in the middle of an Arizona desert about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Marc Yamamoto, the department’s point man for the bidding process, declined to comment for this story.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, said the department’s policy is not to discuss pending requests for proposals, “so that we don’t jeopardize the procurement process.”

Schwartz also declined to provide the number of bidders or their names, saying they are “confidential until a contract is executed.”

Still, CCA appears to be in the pole position to win the contract, given that it has enjoyed a cozy relationship with the state dating back to 1998, when it began housing Hawaii prisoners.

CCA has also invested heavily in lobbying in Hawaii. According to the latest filings with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, it was among the state’s top lobbying companies in January and February, retaining six lobbyists and spending $21,624 during that period.

And the terms of the request for proposals look tailor-made for CCA: As a minimum requirement, vendors must have a facility capable of handling at least 1,800 prisoners within 100 miles of a major airport — with direct flights from Honolulu.

CCA has a number of facilities in its portfolio that can satisfy the requirement — including Saguaro, a 1,896-bed prison in Eloy, Arizona, about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns told Civil Beat that the company has submitted a bid for the contract.

Burns added that the lobbying expenditures were for educating “government partners about the services and solutions” that CCA provides.

“CCA has a strict, longstanding, zero-tolerance policy not to lobby for or against — or take any position on — policies or legislation that would determine the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention,” Burns said.

The Turn To For-Profit Prisons

In the annals of Hawaii’s mainland prison operations, the idea of issuing contracts through competitive bidding is fairly new.

In fact, the state’s current contract, signed in 2011, was the first one awarded by the Department of Public Safety through a standard procurement process.

Before that, the department relied on inter-governmental agreements to bypass the requirements of the Hawaii Public Procurement Code, which sets the rules for state procurements.

The tactic was first deployed in December 1995, when the state made its first foray into contracting with the for-profit prison industry by transferring hundreds of prisoners to the Dickens County Correctional Center in Texas, operated by the Bobby Ross Group.

To secure bed spaces at Dickens, the state signed an agreement with the City of Dickens, Texas, which acted as an intermediary between the Department of Public Safety and the Bobby Ross Group.

From the get-go, critics denounced the transfer, saying it put prisoners into the hands of companies that saw them only as a revenue source.

Caroline Isaacs, program director of the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson, Arizona, calls it “the commodification of human beings.”

“It’s fundamentally wrong to make a profit from depriving people of their liberty,” said Isaacs, who has long opposed prison privatization in Arizona. “That, to me, is the baseline argument. There shouldn’t be any discussion beyond that.”

Saguaro Correctional Facility Eloy Arizona sign, entrance into parking lot.
In 2007, Corrections Corporation of America opened the Saguaro Correctional Center, an 1,896-bed prison in Eloy, Arizona, specially for housing Hawaii prisoners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

It didn’t help that the transfer soon led to a string of highly publicized incidents that exposed security weaknesses at Dickens and the Newton County Correctional Facility — another Texas prison operated by the Bobby Ross Group that housed Hawaii prisoners.

In February 1996, for instance, Hawaii prisoner Larry Pagan escaped from Newton. He was recaptured four days later — but not before he triggered an international incident by kidnapping a woman and forcing her to drive to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

A year later, Newton had another escape: Hawaii prisoner Matthew Treu slipped through a fire exit and managed to drive a guard’s truck to a nearby town, where he was eventually recaptured.

In the end, the Department of Public Safety severed its ties with the Bobby Ross Group in 1998, enlisting the services of CCA and two other for-profit prison companies — GRW and Correctional Services Corp., which was later sold to GEO Group.

But the troubles continued.

In April 2001, Hawaii prisoner Iulani Amani died of a heart attack after packets of crystal methamphetamine burst in his stomach at CCA’s Florence Correctional Center in Arizona.

Two years later, six female guards at CCA’s Diamondback Correctional Facility in Oklahoma were fired following allegations that they engaged in inappropriate relationships with Hawaii prisoners and smuggled crystal methamphetamine.

And, in 2009, the state pulled all 169 female prisoners out of the Otter Creek Correctional Center in Kentucky after learning that several guards at the CCA-run prison had been charged for having sex with the prisoners.

mainland prisons that have housed Hawaii inmates

Murders At Saguaro

By the time female prisoners returned to Hawaii, the state had signed an agreement with the City of Eloy and consolidated all male prisoners at the Red Rock Correctional Center and Saguaro, which was opened just for Hawaii in 2007.

In 2010, two of the worst incidents occurred at Saguaro: Two Hawaii prisoners were murdered by fellow prisoners there.

The first killing came in February 2010, when two assailants stabbed Bronson Nunuha more than 100 times and carved the name of their gang on his chest.

Four months later, another Saguaro prisoner, Clifford Medina, was strangled to death by his cellmate.

By the time he was sworn in as the governor in December 2010, Neil Abercrombie said he had heard enough: He promised that he’d bring all prisoners back to Hawaii, declaring that the state’s mainland prison operation was “dysfunctional.”

“It costs money. It costs lives. It costs communities. It destroys families. It is dysfunctional all the way around — socially, economically, politically and morally,” said Abercrombie, who lost his bid for re-election and left office in late 2014.

A couple of weeks after Abercrombie’s promise to bring back the prisoners, then-Hawaii State Auditor Marion Higa added her own dim view of the arrangement with a scathing report, which noted: “What started as a temporary solution to relieve prison overcrowding is today a matter of state policy.”

Higa pointed out an array of issues with the Department of Public Safety’s practices — including its reliance on inter-governmental agreements, which she said were nothing but a ruse to steer a noncompetitive contract to CCA.

“The department circumvented the competitive procurement process … by blindly treating CCA as a government agency, instead of a private vendor operating for a profit.” — Hawaii State Auditor Marion Higa

“The department circumvented the competitive procurement process and ignored its responsibility to oversee the contracting for out-of-state prison beds by blindly treating CCA as a government agency, instead of a private vendor operating for a profit,” Higa wrote.

Higa also questioned the objectivity of the department’s monitoring unit, noting that monitors merely took CCA’s word that it was in compliance with the contract.

In her reply, Jodie Maesaka-Hirata, the interim director of public safety at the time, wrote that the department wasn’t trying to “maliciously or intentionally misuse and/or circumvent the procurement exemption.”

Still, Maesaka-Hirata promised to take corrective steps. “The department will take this process as a measure of where (its) deficiencies are and use it as a tool to improve upon,” she wrote.

Abercrombie, meanwhile, began working with the Legislature to lay the groundwork for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a federally backed program that had seen success elsewhere in reducing the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders behind bars.

For Abercrombie, a former probation officer, the JRI aligned perfectly with his goal: According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which provided technical assistance, it was projected to lead to a reduction of as many as 1,010 inmates by fiscal year 2018 — enough to bring back most of the Arizona prisoners.

But the reduction didn’t come soon enough.

At the end of June 2011, the state’s contract with the City of Eloy was expiring, and Abercrombie had no choice but to sign off on a new contract with CCA — the only company to submit a bid.

Same As It Ever Was

Five years later, Hawaii’s dependence on mainland prisons remains unchanged: At the end of March, the state still had 1,391 prisoners at Saguaro — about a quarter of the state’s inmate population.

And the problems continue to plague Saguaro.

In 2014, for instance, a federal court granted class certification to allow nearly 200 Saguaro prisoners to join a lawsuit alleging violation of their rights to engage in Native Hawaiian religious practices.

And, last year, Jonathan Namauleg, a 21-year-old serving time for third-degree arson, was strangled to death, allegedly by his cellmate, who was convicted of killing another man, also using a chokehold, in 1996.


Hawaii Justice Reinvestment Bill Signing

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s own four prisons are just as packed as ever — functioning at about 140 percent of their designed capacity.

In 2013, the Department of Public Safety made an effort to change that by issuing a request for information, seeking ways to finance the expansion of its prison footprint.

The department heard from CCA and GEO Group, as well as other companies like Molasky Group and AECOM — though CCA later wrote to clarify that it was interested only in building the facilities, not maintaining them.

But, in the end, it was an exercise in futility; the Legislature didn’t appropriate any money for the effort to move forward.

Now, under Gov. David Ige, the state is no closer to bringing back the prisoners. In fact, the Department of Public Safety is planning to send about 250 additional prisoners temporarily to Arizona, while it renovates the Halawa Correctional Facility.

And Ige is putting his priority on relocating the crumbling Oahu Community Correctional Center — a project that could cost nearly a half-billion dollars — rather than building more prisons.

For its part, the JRI — which Abercrombie signed into law in 2012 — is nowhere close to living up to its promise: The state’s inmate population still stands at 6,025 — only 35 fewer than when the program began.

Still, state Rep. Gregg Takayama, chair of the House Public Safety Committee, says it’s too early to give up on the program.

“The JRI is not a one-time thing,” Takayama said. “It’s an ongoing process by which we try and focus on incarcerating those who need to be incarcerated and being sensible about not incarcerating for the long term those nonviolent offenders. These things can take time.”

State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, concurs, but he acknowledges that, for the foreseeable future, the state’s mainland prison operation would have to be extended.

“I’d like to think that we’ll be able to bring back our inmates, but right now there isn’t really a plan,” Espero said. “Until we fix our overcrowding problem, or have alternatives to incarceration, we have to accommodate the inmates out of state, sadly. It’s something we have to continue to live with.”

But Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says that, if a new contract has to be signed, the Department of Public Safety should be involving the community to craft the terms.

“This is all being done behind closed doors. And you know what our role, the community’s role is? Our role is to pay! We get the bill. That’s it,” Brady said. “We’ve been totally locked out, shut down. It’s really frustrating, because the community has actually been pushing for more programs and more things that actually reduce recidivism.”

About the Author